Four birdlike shadows flashed across the stainless steel wall of the compound. Two streaked left and disappeared behind pallets piled high with boxes, while the other two headed right and vanished into the darkness between the dimly lit doorways.
“This doesn’t look like the stolen electronics components,” Ken whispered.
“No,” Jun agreed, “it seems more like catering supplies.”
“I guess even Galactor have to eat.”
“Hey, kid, what’d you see?” Joe prompted Jinpei after a brief reconnoitre.
“First door leads to bathrooms, second one looks like kitchens,” the youngster responded. “You?”
“Last door looks like it leads to living quarters. Door three’s the winner – stairs leading down.” He
grinned a mirthless grin, then spoke into his bracelet. “G2 to G1. I think we’ve found the way in.”
There was no response.
“Aniki?” Jinpei tried whispering into his own communicator. “Should we go in?”
“Comms are down. They must be jamming us,” Joe surmised. “Go see if you can find them. I’ll stay here.”
“What’s taking Joe and Jinpei so long?” wondered Jun. “We should have heard something by now.”
“G1 to G2. Found anything? . . . Joe?” Ken waited but received no answer. “No response. Do you think they could be jamming us?”
“Yep!” Jinpei popped his head around the corner of the stack of boxes, then continued as he joined his teammates. “That’s what Joe thinks too. There’s a way down over there. Come on!”
“Hold on,” Ken grabbed the young swallow’s cowl and held him back. “We need to try contacting Ryu before we get any deeper into the base.”
“Are you kidding?” Jinpei turned to Jun. “Does he really expect to be able contact to Ryu out there in the God Phoenix when we can’t even get a signal in here?”
“G5, this is G1. Do you copy?” Ken spoke into his bracelet. “G5, do you read?”
“He’s not expecting an answer, but you know we have to try,” Jun reminded him. “It’s procedure. And the God Phoenix has signal boosters.”
Just then Joe dropped down from the top of one of the taller stacks to join the others.
“I guess we can’t call in the cavalry?” Joe’s question was answered by a shake of Ken’s head. “The jamming device must be somewhere in the base. Last time we contacted Ryu we were less than a hundred meters away from where we are now.”
“Maybe I can find a way to detect the device,” Jun suggested as she opened her bracelet’s faceplate.
“Good idea,” Ken agreed. “We get in, Jinpei and I will find the stolen equipment, you and Joe find and neutralise the jamming device. Twenty minute time limit – if communications haven’t been restored by then we get out and blow the base.”
“We won’t have that long if we go now,” Joe said, ominously. “There’s a lot of activity over there now. Change of shift, meal time or something.”
A five minute wait allowed the foot traffic around the stairs to die down while Jun found a signal that could be the jamming device, and a way to track its location.
The four ninjas made it down the long flight of stairs without needing to deal with more than a half dozen Galactor infantry. The staircase opened out to a wide intersection of corridors. They’d seen similar layouts before and could make educated guesses as to which direction to head in to find what they were looking for.
“Signal seems strongest this way.” Jun indicated the corridor leading straight ahead of the stairs.
“Twenty minutes,” Ken reminded them, then took off down the corridor on the left with Jinpei close behind.
The corridor Jun and Joe needed to take appeared to be a main artery through the base. It was wide with a high ceiling and doors leading off either side at regular intervals. A suspended catwalk allowing access to the corridor lights and air ducts ran above the centre of the corridor. Joe suggested they’d encounter less goons if he and Jun traversed the catwalk. Progress was slightly cautious to prevent the suspended lights from swinging as they walked. All the while the signal Jun was following became stronger. The end of the corridor brought them to a large set of interlocking, sliding steel doors.
“Whatever we’re looking for is through there,” Jun whispered.
“Looks like it has a keypad lock, that’ll mean we need a code.” Joe groaned at the prospect. “That door will be too thick to drill through or torch – it’ll take too long.”
“Maybe we’ll get lucky,” Jun smiled and nodded towards a pair of Galactor soldiers approaching the doors.
Sure enough, they stopped at the doors and the taller of the two punched a series of numbers into the keypad. As the huge doors slid apart the two men started to walk through, and Jun and Joe swooped. Quick as a flash, a streak of pink and another of blue descended from the catwalk and flew through the doors. The two Galactor goons never knew what hit them – both were out of action before the double doors had closed again.
Jun and Joe found themselves inside a large hangar. Technicians and mechanics in Galactor uniforms, and small service vehicles moved about the vast space. An enormous, somewhat bird-shaped aircraft occupied the centre of the domed area. A kind of mezzanine level jutted three meters out of the side walls about ten meters above floor level, extending three quarters of the way around the room, leaving a semi-circular hangar door at the far end.
After dragging the hapless goons out of sight, Joe and Jun crouched beside equipment racks against the side wall and took stock of their surroundings.
“What is that?” Joe asked, indicating the massive, blue-ish metal aircraft with a nasty looking long, thin, slightly curved beak. “Some kind of wading bird?”
“I don’t know,” Jun replied distractedly, “but the jamming device is probably somewhere on board.”
At that moment an alarm started blaring.
“Jinpei and Ken!” Jun gasped.
“. . . can take care of themselves,” Joe reassured her. “But if I’m not mistaken, we’re gonna have to hurry this up.”
The amount of activity in the hangar (and by the sound of it, on the mezzanine level above them) began to increase as uniformed soldiers began responding to the alarm. Orders were being barked, weapons collected and readied for action, and likely locations for the intruders suggested; “The Command Centre!” . . . “the plant room” . . . “The power generator!”
“Do you think they found the stolen components?” Jun whispered.
“I think they found trouble.”
“Then maybe we should go and help them.”
“The best way for us to help would be to get inside that . . . thing and find the jamming device.” Joe studied her expression for a moment. He hoped his own concern for Ken and Jinpei was not as obvious, but he could also see determination behind that golden visor. She nodded, doing her best to put aside her unease.
There were now less technicians and mechanics in the hangar, but there was still some activity audible above them. Guards could be seen posted at entrances on the mezzanine, but they were focussing their attention away from the hangar floor.
“Looks like now’s our best chance,” Joe suggested before heading off in a blue streak across the hangar and concealing himself behind one of the long, folded metal legs of the giant bird. Jun quickly followed.
The main hatch and ramp was closed, but a small opening in the bird’s hull, designed to allow maintenance access, had been left open in the rush to respond to the alarm. The ladder had been removed, but a five meter, near-vertical leap was no challenge for the two ninjas.
Just as Joe made his landing inside the iron bird, and Jun was preparing to jump, the vibrations and muffled sounds of an explosion somewhere within the base shook them. Jun fought the urge to look for the source of the detonation and instead focussed her energy into her leap, and soon joined Joe in a narrow space running uphill towards the bird’s left wing. They couldn’t fit side by side, and Joe had to stoop to keep from hitting his head. The tunnel was designed to give maintenance crews access to control cables, electrical circuits and crawl spaces between mechanical sections.
Another, slightly louder explosion and the sound of distant gunfire reached their ears.
“We need to hurry,” Joe grumbled and began making his way up the access tunnel.
“I wish I knew what was going on,” Jun complained.
“Then we’d better find this thing and disable it so we can get hold of Ken and ask him!” Joe shot back as he continued up the tunnel, leaving Jun little choice but to follow.
They had made about ten meters of steady progress when another alarm began to sound. A different tone from the earlier one. The maintenance hatch Jun and Joe had entered through clanged shut below and behind them. Sounds of running feet and voices made their way nearer and the loud, mechanical cacophony of the main belly hatch mechanism clunked to life, culminating in the gritty clang and grind of the ramp hitting the hangar floor.
Jun took a breath to steady her pounding heart, and consulted her bracelet to try and get a fix on the location of the jamming device. They had to be pretty close.
“We need to make our way up and to the right,” she stated in a far less panicky tone than she felt.
“Then we’ll need to check out these side shafts,” Joe suggested.
Footsteps and voices were now evident both inside and outside the mecha. A distinctly metallic screeching sound indicated the opening of the main hangar doors. Servos began clicking as the mecha’s systems started to come online, engines whined into their warm-up sequence. Preparations for take-off had begun.
“Okay,” Joe backed out of one of the side shafts. “Not that way! By the sound of it, that leads to an engine.”
“This one!” Jun exclaimed from another shaft a little further up.
The side tunnel she had found led a short distance into a small room lined with shelves and racks stocked with tools and spare parts. Joe crawled through into the room and stood at his full height for the first time since they’d entered the mecha, then strode straight over to the door at the other end of the room and listened.
“. . . base is compromised, Lord Katse has set the self-destruct. As soon as he is aboard we’ll take off . . .”
As he turned to face Jun he saw her expression change to one of alarm and Joe realised his own expression was a mix of surprise and concern. He relayed the overheard information to her.
“Then we need to get out of here,” she responded. “We have to warn Ken and Jinpei!”
“They will have figured it out by now,” Joe reassured her. “They’ll find a way out of the base. Right now our best chance of escape is to stay aboard this mecha. If Katse is using it as a lifeboat then it’s a guaranteed safe ride out.”
“Then what? Our comms are still down. The others won’t know where we are.”
“We stick to the plan – find the jamming device and disable it. Then we can contact the others and . . .” he trailed off in thought. “Maybe we can track Katse back to Galactor’s headquarters.”
“And what if we can’t disable it? Or if we can’t find it? Or if we’re discovered and . . .”
“Then we blow this thing to pieces and hope for a soft landing.”
Just then the engine noise increased and the mecha lurched as it moved into take-off position. The belly hatch ramp could be heard retracting and closing. There was a large explosion somewhere close by, perhaps even within the hangar. Another change in engine note and a sudden jolt accompanied the take off. The bird mecha barely cleared the hangar entrance as a massive fiery explosion blasted out of the base. The shockwave and turbulence sent the aircraft lurching and rocking, causing badly restrained equipment to fly in all directions about the storeroom. A large tool chest began to topple.
“Jun!” Joe warned as he staggered and struggled to stay upright amid the aircraft’s erratic movements.
Jun tried to leap clear of the heavy chest as it fell, but she was off balance and struggling to find her footing. As she jumped the mecha pitched sideways violently and her right ankle buckled beneath her. The tool chest crashed to the floor, narrowly missing her feet on its way down and her way up. She landed heavily in a half-kneeling position next to Joe with a grunt and a grimace of pain.
They rode out the rest of the turbulence in silence, concentrating on staying balanced and clear of further falling objects. Then as the mecha’s flight began to level out into clear air, Joe reached out to help Jun to her feet.
Jun kept hold of Joe’s arm as she tested her weight on her right foot.
“Aaaaah!” She hopped a little on her left foot. “No! I don’t think anything’s broken, but I can’t put much weight on it.”
“Okay,” he said, slowly, “so, you stay here. Show me how to track this jamming device and I’ll go find it. Then I’ll come back here and we’ll get out the way we came in. Moving through these tunnels is too slow for my liking, but it’s a more discreet option than using the main corridors.”
She considered his plan for a moment. She didn’t much like the idea of sitting around helplessly, wondering if Joe was having any luck. The chances of him finding it without drawing unwanted attention were too slim.
“No,” she asserted, a look of steely determination in her emerald eyes as she fixed them on his. “Let’s go with Plan B – blow this thing to pieces!”
He held her gaze a while, discerning how much of this was pain talking and how much was about wanting to know if Jinpei and Ken were okay. He could see that she wanted this over quickly, but she was looking at the options. If they destroyed the mecha it might destroy the jamming device as well.
“Alright,” Joe sighed and gave a nod. “What kind of charges have you got?”
He and Jun took stock of their combined stash of explosives and timing devices, discussed what little they knew so far of the mecha’s structure, propulsion system and dimensions, and came up with a plan of action. Joe would need to leave Jun on her own for a while, but there was little chance of either of them being detected while he was gone. Jun handed over the two small, but powerful devices she’d assembled. All Joe would need to do was place them and set the timers.
Joe returned to the maintenance tunnel and followed it upward, looking for a lateral corridor that would cross over to the other side. Just as Jun had predicted a cramped tunnel, presumably somewhere close to the bird’s shoulders provided access to a central power cell which supplied most of the ship’s critical systems. It was likely the path he had just travelled would be mirrored on the other side of the ship.
It took only a few minutes for Joe to secure the explosive device directly to the power cell, set the timer and make his way back to Jun. Together they made their way back through the maintenance tunnel toward the small hatch in the hull where they had come in. On the way Joe ducked into the side shaft he’d found earlier and set the second explosive device close to the engine, this one on a shorter timer.
They were delayed slightly by the seal on the exit hatch. Jun used a small charge to blow the electronic lock and they were able to drop through and freefall clear of the giant metal bird, just as the timer on the first explosive reached zero.
As two sets of Birdstyle wings unfurled the dull crump and thud of the first explosion caused the steel bird to buckle outwards between the metal wings. Joe began to ride the air currents, searching for a place to land on one of the small islands dotting the Pacific Ocean below them. He spotted a likely candidate and looked back to check that Jun was following as he directed his glide towards it. The second explosive detonated, causing a fireball and black smoke to belch from the engine behind the mecha’s left wing. The ugly steel bird was losing altitude, breaking apart and beginning to tumble as further explosions flashed across its body. The spindly legs were among the first large pieces to break away, along with large sheets of the outer casing and smaller pieces of flaming debris.
The long, narrow curved beak detached and plunged into the ocean as the spherical head launched away from the elongated neck and steered up and away. It had to be Katse’s escape vessel.
Checking over his shoulder at regular intervals to watch for debris, and to ensure Jun was still close by, Joe glided above the wooded area of the island and started descending toward a long stretch of beach. Dodging various jagged pieces of hot metal jutting out of the sand, he touched down gently in the soft, white sand close to the trees. Knowing Jun would find landing difficult with an injured ankle, he immediately turned to check her position. Following her trajectory, he ran along the beach to meet her at her landing point.
Jun glided in to land, seeing Joe waiting to assist. She touched her left foot down and allowed her momentum to take her forward towards Joe’s waiting arms so that she didn’t have to put weight on her right foot as she put the toe of her boot onto the sand. She held Joe’s right forearm and left shoulder as she steadied herself, and looked up to meet his concerned gaze.
At that moment the largest remaining section of the bird mecha, which had only remained in the air this long through the sheer determination of a small Galactor flight crew who were desperately hoping against all hope that they may somehow survive this catastrophe, finally succumbed to its fate and crashed into the ocean in a dramatic and bright ball of flame. Joe closed his eyes and turned his head against the irritation of the flash of light. Jun turned to study the colour and shape of the flames and smoke on the horizon, analysing the probable cause of the aircraft exploding on impact the way it did.
The bright flash faded to an orange glow and began to disappear as the smoke billowed, rose and dissipated. Joe, no longer irritated by the light, turned back towards the crash site.
“I guess that’s it. Now we’ll never figure out what it was meant to be.”
“I think it was an ibis,” Jun informed him, “although I’m not sure why they decided to paint it blue.” She shifted her position slightly with an awkward pivot and a limping half step.
“Here, let me take a look at that ankle.” Joe indicated a nearby fallen tree trunk and gently guided Jun over to it, lending a hand to help her sit. Kneeling at her feet, he took her right foot in his hands. “This isn’t going to be easy, but we need to get this boot off.”
“It’ll be easier if I transform out of Birdstyle,” Jun offered.
“Check your communicator,” Joe suggested. “Can you contact the others?”
“What? Why?” Jun responded with appropriate confusion, raising her bracelet to follow Joe’s instruction.
“Just try it.” Joe had that look that said he was thinking two steps ahead and waiting for her to catch up.
“G3 to G1. Do you read me, Commander? . . . Jinpei? Ryu? Do you copy?” There was no response.
“Comms are still jammed. That means the device is still active and somewhere nearby.” Joe watched Jun as she concentrated on where this train of thought was going. “There is a chance that there are survivors from the crash who could also be monitoring our transformation frequency. It’s a slim chance, but do you want to risk it?”
Since Galactor had gained the knowledge of the team’s transformation frequency some months back Dr Nambu had cautioned them all to be even more careful of when and where they transformed.
“No,” Jun conceded. “But how did you know our communications were still down?”
“I know Ken,” Joe grinned. “As soon as that jamming device is out of action we’ll hear him chirp.” The grin faded as Joe began to concentrate on the job at hand. “Okay, you ready?”
Jun gave a nod and manoeuvred her foot as best she could while Joe gently eased the long, white boot off, revealing her reddened, swollen ankle. She found herself marvelling at the gentle touch of his hands, the tender care he took as he had her test the range of movement, and that mixture of calm, controlled confidence, and pure concern in his eyes each time he looked up at her to ask a question. It didn’t take long to determine the injury was most likely to be a sprain, albeit a nasty one. Joe reached into a pouch on his belt and brought out a compression bandage. She watched in silence as those hands that she knew could be deadly when necessary expertly wound the bandage around her ankle with such gentleness.
“You’re good at that,” she remarked as he finished pinning the bandage in place. He gave her a bemused look. “The first-aid thing. You have excellent field dressing skills.”
He found himself unsure of how to react, so he smirked, shrugged and adopted his best doctor-ish voice. “Well, without ice to bring the swelling down you will have to make sure you rest and elevate that ankle.”
“I’ll rest it when we get back to the God Phoenix.” Jun’s expression changed to one of resolve as she reached for her boot. “Right now we need to find that jamming device.”
Joe reluctantly handed her the boot and helped her wrestle it back on over the freshly bandaged ankle as he spoke.
“There’s a pretty big debris field. The chances of it being somewhere on this island, or even close by are pretty slim.” He waved a hand out towards the water. “What if it’s out there on the bottom of the ocean? Our first priority should be to build a fire.”
Jun was barely listening. She was consulting her bracelet tracking device.
“It’s not far away. Possibly within two hundred metres or so, but I’m having trouble getting an exact fix on the location. You might be right. Maybe it is under water. Or maybe it’s moving. There’s a lot of debris washing ashore.”
“If you can’t pinpoint a search area we’re better off trying to make a signal visible from the air. Something the rest of the team will see from the God Phoenix.”
Jun looked up from the tiny tracker on her wrist, an expression of concern furrowing her brow.
“Do you think they’ll be looking for us?” she asked, suddenly feeling the weight of many unanswered questions. The inability to contact the rest of the team or Dr Nambu made her feel uneasy, anxious and a little lost.
The helplessness beginning to show in Jun’s demeanour did not go unnoticed by Joe. He sat beside her on the log.
“Let’s talk it through, Junee.” He hadn’t called her that in quite a while, but it was a name he’d used before when he knew she needed to talk. “What’s worrying you the most?”
“What if they didn’t make it out of the base? Jinpei and Ken.”
Taking Jun’s hand in his, Joe encouraged her to talk through the most likely scenarios to have happened during the fifteen minutes they had spent in the base. The alarm had sounded barely ten minutes after they’d all entered the complex. With Joe’s prompting Jun realised the likely cause for that alarm was that Ken and Jinpei – or some of their handiwork – had been detected by Galactor’s base security. She saw the likelihood that Ken and Jinpei had found what they were looking for and set off the alarm, or the explosion, or both on purpose as a signal to her and Joe. She recalled the confusion in the voices they’d overheard in the hangar making suggestions of locations where the enemy might be headed next. It didn’t sound as though they had been captured.
“So, they weren’t caught, they made noise to alert us to the fact that we had less time than we thought,” Joe summarised, “would they hang around any longer than they had to?”
“No,” Jun agreed, “Ken would do enough to make sure we got the message then get out because Jinpei was with him. If he was on his own he might have chased after Katse. And Berg Katse was running because he didn’t know where his enemy was. He wouldn’t have run if he thought there was any chance he could defeat the mighty Gatchaman.” She had been feeling more positive with every word, but a new recollection shook her confidence. “But the explosions we heard . . . and the gunfire . . .”
“Just confirm that Jinpei and Ken were on the move, keeping the bad guys busy and confused so we could all get out before the big boom.”
One look into the steely, calm gaze beneath that purple visor was enough to show Jun that Joe believed in his heart that Ken and Jinpei were safely aboard the God Phoenix with Ryu. Yes, deep down, she believed it too. They would not have been in the base when the self-destruct count-down reached zero.
“But they don’t know that we got out, or how. They won’t know to look for us way out here.”
“But they will be looking, Jun.” His quiet calm was reassuring.
“I know,” she sighed. “If we were in their position we would keep looking until we found them. I know they’ll be doing the same. I just wish we could contact them, or at least send a Birdscramble.” She was thinking more clearly now. “They have full communications capability now that the jamming device is out of range. Ken should have the combined resources of the God Phoenix and Dr Nambu at his disposal to help him find us. When they can’t contact us they’ll assume we’re still close to the device . . . or dead.”
“They won’t be thinking that, Jun.” Joe’s gaze was both intense and compassionate. “They won’t give up on us. Don’t give up on them.”
Jun knew she was being foolish. Joe was right – Ken, Jinpei and Ryu would be searching for them. They would believe she and Joe had escaped the base. Between them they would figure out that the most likely reason for the lack of contact had to be because their two missing team members were still close to the jamming device. She kept thinking it through.
“Ken and Jinpei would have worked out the direction we took inside the base was likely to have taken us to the hangar. They’ll conclude that we must have been on board the bird mecha looking for the jamming device when it took off.” She was feeling brighter and more confident now. “Ryu would have seen the bird’s take off trajectory, and Dr Nambu will be monitoring reports of radar tracking or sightings of the explosion or smoke or debris. It’s going to take time for them to come up with a search area though, and there’s a vast expanse of ocean and a lot of tiny islands for them to search.”
“So let’s get started on the fire. We’ve probably got a couple of hours of daylight left.”
“I’ll get the fire built, Joe.” Jun was back to her confident, capable self. “Maybe you should check out our surroundings. Make sure we’re on our own. See if there’s anything amongst the wreckage we can use?”
Joe watched her get to her feet and limp over to begin collecting firewood as she spoke. He had been about to suggest that he scout around a bit once the fire was built, but he recognised her need to be doing something constructive.
“Okay. . .” he began, but as he stood the sudden intensity of the throbbing pain in his head caused him to groan and put a hand to his helmet. Jun looked over at him, concern furrowing her brow. Before she could say a word, Joe squared his shoulders and assured her “I’m fine. It’s nothing.”
She fixed him with a stare he was sure she’d learned from him – one that said “I know you’re not being honest with me.” Joe felt her gaze scrutinising him, searching his features, his eyes, for answers. So this was what it felt like to be on the receiving end of one of those stares. He was both impressed by the way she maintained the intensity enough to make him feel uncomfortable, and disappointed in himself for being unable to withstand her scrutiny.
“It’s just a headache,” he mumbled, finally giving in. Before she could argue or question him about it he turned away. “I’ll go check out the island.”
She watched him go, striding out towards the tree line, then leaping into the branches where he had a better vantage. He easily moved from branch to branch, tree to tree. Once he’d disappeared from view she returned to collecting firewood, but her mind was on Joe and headaches. A headache would have to be pretty bad for Joe to let her see he was hurting. Could he have hit his head on something inside the mecha? Was there a possibility of concussion? No, that was pretty unlikely. There was something else. Something was causing a mental itch. A thought, a memory, a theory beginning to form.
Her mind kept scratching away at the itch while she stacked the wood in a spot she’d cleared on the sand and surrounded with large stones. He wasn’t himself on the mission to Galactor’s Beta Base. He’d missed with the Bird Missile and failed in the Tornado Fighter – twice. Not long before that he’d been so late joining up with the God Phoenix that they had ended up engaging with the Grape Bomber without him. He had turned up during the debrief saying he wasn’t feeling well. Had there been other headaches? Was it more than just a headache?
Not for the first time, she realised she was worried about him. He wasn’t one to complain or talk about anything that was bothering him. He preferred to work through things on his own, in his own way. She had seen how upset he was after missing the skirmish with the Grape Bomber. She’d tried to talk to him then but he had pushed her away.
Joe was the one Jun had always turned to when she needed to talk to someone – usually about Ken. In fact it was often Joe who encouraged her to open up when she was feeling down. He was never judgemental, at least not towards her. He could say some pretty harsh things about Ken sometimes, especially when he thought Ken might be mistreating her emotionally. But Joe had always listened, comforted, consoled and helped her see the best of herself. She wished he would let her do the same for him.
In the meantime Joe was making his way across the island, covering as much ground as he could, looking for dangers, surprises or anything useful. He was kicking himself for telling Jun about the headache. He knew she would worry about it, about him. He was going to have to face questions and he really didn’t want to lie to her. There was no way he could tell her all the details about the headaches, the blurred vision, the sensitivity to flashing or bright lights, the numbness in his hand . . . not to mention how much he hated feeling like he was letting everyone down. He couldn’t tell her he was afraid this would mean he’d have to leave the team. He still didn’t want to admit that possibility to himself, but he knew he could be medically assessed as a liability. He didn’t want to leave the job unfinished. He needed to complete the job he signed up for – to defeat Galactor and bring them to justice. But more importantly, he wanted to be there for the rest of the team, to do his part but also to keep them safe. His illness, whatever it was, had already put the others in mortal danger at least twice. He hated himself for that. And he hated having to prove himself to Ken, hated that he had given Ken a reason to doubt his ability in battle, to be worried about his second in command. He hoped Ken would let him deal with things himself and not ask too many more questions. The trouble was he wasn’t sure how to deal with what was happening to him.
Right now there was nothing he could do but ignore it. The pain was still there but he pushed the thought of it into the back of his mind, focussing instead on his search of the island. Keeping busy, doing something, thinking about anything but the pain in his head was the only way he could deal with it for the moment.
The island was deserted. No Galactor survivors, no settlements or dwellings, no life at all except for birds, insects, lizards . . . small creatures. Debris from the ill-fated mecha was scattered all over the island. There was less on the far side than there had been on the beach where they’d landed. Trees were fairly thick in the centre of the island, which was roughly circular in shape. Joe had seen some large pieces of the destroyed mecha that might prove useful for building shelter, or perhaps to use as part of the signal he planned to assemble on the beach. Using strong vines to fashion a makeshift net he was able to collect quite a few pieces of large, useful scrap and carry them back to the beach where Jun had built the fire.
“We’re the only ones here,” he informed her. “The island is pretty small. Trees and plants get pretty dense in the middle. No fresh water that I could find, but plenty of these.”
He produced two coconuts from the carry net, and an infectious grin which produced a giggle from Jun as she checked out what else Joe had brought back. There were a few more coconuts and some other fruits Joe had found, but most of the hoard seemed to be pieces of metal from the crashed aircraft.
“I thought we might need shelter,” he explained in answer to her puzzled expression, “and I have a plan for a signal to lay out on the beach – like Jinpei did with the trees in Amazonia.”
“I’d forgotten all about that! Good idea. But can we break into one of these coconuts first? I could really use a drink.”
He was still grinning as he used the drill attachment of his gun to make a hole in one of the coconuts and handed it to her then repeated the process with one for himself. Side by side they sat on the sandy beach trying their best not to look awkward drinking from coconuts that were difficult to fit under the visors of their helmets. Jun laughed, coconut juice dripping down her chin, and Joe smiled at the silliness of the situation. A genuine expression of true happiness that lit up his face.
“You should do that more often,” she admonished.
“Smile. You haven’t done that nearly enough lately.”
The bright sparkle in his eyes was already beginning to fade again.
“Sorry Jun,” he apologised. “I guess it just hasn’t seemed like there’s much to smile about.”
“You know, a wise man once told me it’s better if you talk about it,” she said softly, studying Joe’s expression as he stared out at the water. The sun was low in the sky, painting the scattered clouds in varying hues of gold and orange. “Actually, he’s told me more than once. A wise man who’s much better at listening and giving advice than he is at talking about what’s troubling him.”
They sat and drank in silence for a moment, watching the slowly changing colours in the water and sky.
“Is it the headaches?” Joe inwardly cringed at her use of the plural. “You’ve had others before today, haven’t you?” She waited for him to respond, but was not surprised by his silence. “You should get checked out by the medical staff. I know how much you hate doctors and medical tests, but it might be something really simple to fix. Maybe you need glasses,” she suggested. “That wouldn’t be too hard to manage. Your visor could be adapted to your prescription so you wouldn’t have to wear glasses or contacts in Birdstyle.”
Joe scowled, but didn’t speak. He knew it was much more than corrective lenses could possibly fix. He did appreciate Jun’s concern for him, and the fact that she was thinking of solutions, but seeing the team’s medical staff was not an attractive option.
“Do you think they could be migraines?” Jun suddenly recalled Joe’s reaction to the flash of the exploding ibis mecha. “I don’t know much about them but I’ve heard that they can cause photosensitivity. And that they can be really painful.”
Now this was an interesting theory, one that might bear further investigation. He didn’t think migraines could explain all of his symptoms, but Joe was willing to concede that asking for some medical advice might be a good idea.
“I don’t want to talk about headaches, Jun,” he finally answered, looking at her sideways. “If I get any more I’ll see someone about it when we get back.” She narrowed her eyes, knowing his history of ducking out of medical appointments. “I promise.”
He would keep his promise. He just wouldn’t see any doctor that could rule him unfit for duty.
Again they lapsed into silence, watching the golden orb sinking towards the darkening ocean a little to the right of their vista. A golden path formed from beach to horizon as the sun dipped below the water and appeared to melt into the liquid. The colours in the sky darkened to pinks and blues with hints of purple and highlights of yellow, all reflected like tiny mosaic tiles on the uneven surface of the water.
Joe found himself admiring the gleam in Jun’s eyes, her tranquil smile, her expression of pure and simple pleasure at the ever changing artwork nature was displaying for them.
“So beautiful,” she sighed.
“Exactly what I was thinking.” He hadn’t realised he’d spoken aloud until she began to turn her head towards him. He hurriedly returned his gaze to the view ahead and prayed that the combined tints of their visors would prevent her from seeing the colour he could feel rising in his cheeks, hoped she hadn’t caught him watching her.
“See,” she playfully nudged his arm, “reasons to smile. You just have to find the time to look for them.”
“I think you’re a lot better at that than I am.” He sighed. His fingers began idly picking at the edge of the hole in his coconut. He felt her watching him. “But you’re right. I’ve been forgetting some of the things I have to be happy about.”
“So what is it that’s making you unhappy?” she prompted, watching his expression, trying to read his thoughts. Sometimes his emotions were easy to read, unfettered, uncomplicated. Right now what she saw in his face was a complex, unreadable mixture of what she could only describe as feelings in motion.
The sky and ocean were now almost the same colour. The sun was so far below the horizon that the only light source in the sky was now the tiny pinpricks of the stars beginning appear. It seemed like a long time had passed before Joe broke the silence.
“Do you ever wonder,” he began hesitantly, “how long we can . . . how long we’ll have to keep doing this? Keep fighting Galactor?”
Jun knew the question was rhetorical, but it hung in the air for so long she almost wanted to give him an answer. He had more to say, she just had to wait him out.
“It’s been two years, Jun,” he finally continued. “Two years of the same thing. They attack, wreak havoc and leave destruction in their wake. We get called in to save the day, counter attack and cause or own brand of destruction. Nothing really changes. We’re back to where we started, waiting for Galactor’s next move. Only now there’s two years’ worth of damage.
“Two years, and how many ISO facilities destroyed? Information and resources stolen or laid to waste. How many communities, towns, cities levelled? How many lives lost and families devastated – on both sides? How much more before it’s all over?
“And it’s changed all of us.”
Joe looked at Jun, his eyes ablaze with anger and sadness. She felt the depth of his frustration. She understood it, somehow more deeply than his words alone had conveyed. And she felt closer to him than she ever had.
“It needs to end,” Joe went on. “We need to end it! Find their headquarters, stop Berg Katse and this mysterious Sosai X and bring down the entire organisation once and for all.”
His fist slammed into the sand between them, causing Jun to jump a little. She put her hand atop his and felt the slight tremor in it before he slowly uncurled his fist, turning his palm upward and allowing her to intertwine her fingers with his. She wanted to tell him that it would be okay, that she understood how he felt, that Galactor’s days were numbered, but she knew none of her words would help. Just being there to listen was enough. She could feel his tension easing. Deep down she knew there was more troubling him but he was unlikely to say more right now.
“We should probably keep an eye on the fire,” Jun suggested, giving Joe’s hand a squeeze. He squeezed back then disentangled his fingers from hers.
“I’ll keep the fire going,” he offered. “You should stay off that ankle, and keep it elevated.”
Jun rolled her eyes in response, but resettled herself by the fire, her back resting against a tree trunk with her right foot resting up on a rock protruding from the sand. She watched him add more wood to the fire and stoke it, then step back and lean against a nearby palm tree in that familiar pose that she’d come to associate with him. Silence lingered between them until Jun could stand it no longer.
“What did you mean before? When you said that fighting against Galactor had changed us?”
Joe was slow to answer.
“None of us are the same people as we were two years ago when all of this really kicked off. Everything we’ve done since then, the things we’ve seen, the decisions we were forced to make, the people we’ve lost, it’s all made a mark.”
“But at our age we’re supposed to change a lot in two years, to learn and grow from our life experiences,” she challenged.
“Some of our life experiences are ones that I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” he solemnly replied. “We’re not exactly living the life of average young adults.”
Jun cogitated on this for a while. Joe could see the figurative wheels turning as she chewed her lower lip. She could argue that none of their lives had ever been average, that they’d all had experiences in their childhood that most didn’t have to face. Then there was the years of training they’d all undergone. But Joe was right, none of that compared to what they’d all been through since the fighting began.
“I know what you mean,” she finally conceded. “I really worry about Jinpei sometimes.” Her gaze drifted to the dancing flames. “What kind of adult will he turn out to be when his childhood has been so, well, unusual? Sometimes he seems so grown up, responsible, capable – wise beyond his years. Then there are times when he reminds me how young he really is, how scared he gets, how much he still has to learn, and how tender-hearted he is. I don’t want him to lose all of his innocence and curiosity. I love his willingness to explore, but there are times when that has led him to find things he wasn’t completely ready to see. I guess we’ve all been exposed to things we wish we hadn’t.” She sighed and looked away from the fire and up at Joe. “I know you shield Jinpei from the worst of it at times – you and Ken. And you probably keep things from me too.”
“Very rarely, and only things we don’t think anyone needs to see. The kinds of nightmares I wish I didn’t have to relive in my own head.”
With his head down the firelight reflected off his visor and Jun couldn’t read Joe’s expression. She wondered what kinds of horrors Joe and Ken had kept to themselves and was both glad that they had done so, and offended that they didn’t think she could handle it. Joe interrupted her conflicted thoughts.
“Jinpei will turn out okay. He’s got you to keep him grounded.”
“And three big brothers looking out for him,” Jun agreed with a smile.
Another long period of silence stretched between them, leaving nothing but the sounds of the crackling fire and the local wildlife settling into their nightly routines. Once more it was Jun who spoke first.
“Do you ever think about what we’ll all be like in the future? When all of this is over and there’s no need for the Science Ninja Team anymore?”
“In the future?” Joe used one foot to push off the tree and moved to sit on one of the rocks by the fire, close to Jun’s elevated foot. “A future without constant battles with Galactor? The fighting’s over? Can’t say that’s something I’ve ever really thought about.”
“Why not? After all, isn’t that what we’re fighting for?” Jun queried. “Surely you don’t think we’ll still be doing this in twenty years, when we’re pushing forty!? If we defeat Galactor tomorrow and get to hang up our Birdstyles forever, where will your life take you?”
Bemused silence was Joe’s initial response. He realised he hadn’t given any serious consideration to his future beyond defeating Galactor.
“I dunno,” Joe shrugged. “Fighting against Galactor, and making them pay for what they did to my parents has been my goal since I was eight years old. Some of the motivation has changed, there are more reasons to want them permanently stopped than there used to be, but I dunno. Maybe part of me finds it hard to believe we’ll ever really be done fighting them. Don’t give me that look, Jun!”
Her eyes spoke of pity. He didn’t need her feeling sorry for him. He tried to stare her down while he came up with some kind of vision of his future.
“If it ended tomorrow?” he finally began, “I guess I’d concentrate on racing, make a serious career of being a driver, travelling from race to race, wherever the prizemoney might take me. After that I guess maybe running a race team. I’m not really qualified for much else in terms of real world jobs. Not much call for civilian marksmen.”
“You’d live in the trailer?” Curiosity had replaced Jun’s expression of pity. “You wouldn’t want to find something more permanent, buy a house maybe?”
“Trailer suits me fine. Especially if I’m gonna be travelling for most of the year. No point paying rent on a place you’re not living in, same goes for a mortgage.”
“You wouldn’t want to settle down, find the right girl, start a family? I think you’d be a great dad.”
“I really don’t know. Maybe.” He was starting to get irritated.
“What about all your girlfriends?” she teased. He scowled. “Come on, Joe. You do have a reputation, after all.”
“Don’t believe everything you hear, Jun. A lot of that reputation is built on carefully constructed rumours.” Jun’s eyes widened in surprise, and Joe smirked. “Dr Nambu thought it would make me seem more credible as a young, hot shot race driver if I fitted the stereotype.”
“Yeah, he suggested a few ways I could build up that image, without necessarily living up to it. It’s kind of a long story, really.” Joe paused in thought, then gave a devilish grin. “That man is devious in ways you’d never imagine.” Joe enjoyed watching Jun’s expression turn from surprise to shock and then red-faced curiosity.
“So, you haven’t . . . um . . . taken girls back to your trailer after races?”
“There are girls that hang around victory lane just looking to put another notch on the bedpost – score with the winning driver, or whatever. I’m not going to pretend I haven’t taken a few girls up on an offer from time to time, but never in my trailer, and never without making sure all my cards were laid out on the table first. How far it goes that night is up to them, but I’m not looking for anything serious, and I won’t stay the night. A lot of the time we just have a few drinks, go back to her place, or her hotel long enough for her to tell whatever story she wants to tell in the morning.”
Jun wasn’t looking him in the eye. She was still a little embarrassed about even asking, but the answer just made her more intrigued.
“There are girls who actually want one night stands?” She grappled with the notion for a moment, finding it hard to identify with, then remembered something else Joe had mentioned that caught her attention. “You never take them back to your trailer?”
“Never,” he averred. “I have boundaries. No girl will see the inside of my trailer as long as I have secrets to keep.”
“I’ve been inside your trailer,” Jun reminded him.
Joe’s expression remained blank for a moment, various responses running through his head; “But you don’t count.”, “I don’t think of you like that.”, “That’s different.”, “You’re special.” All of those responses could get him into trouble. Finally he settled on the only thing he thought was safe.
“So you know exactly how ill-equipped it is for entertaining.” She grinned. He had a point.
“And you don’t have to keep secrets from me.” She winked, then blushed again thinking about the type of entertaining they’d been talking about. “Well, maybe some secrets.”
“You asked!” It was Joe’s turn to grin. “Now, don’t make me start asking about all your exes.”
“What? I don’t . . .” she saw he was joking, and leaned forward to give him a playful tap on the leg. In truth, Joe already knew more about her love-life than anyone else. He’d always been there for her to confide in when she was falling for someone, or when things weren’t working out the way she’d hoped.
For a moment they both sat smiling at each other, a mood of easy closeness between them. Until they both began to feel a little self-conscious and slightly awkward. Joe took the conversation back to Jun’s question about the future.
“Okay, now we’ve established that I haven’t thought about my future, I’m guessing you’ve got yours all planned. What kind of future do you imagine?”
Jun’s face lit up. It was obvious to Joe that Jun had spent a fair amount of time daydreaming about this subject and she was happy to have someone to share it with.
“Well, I’ve kind of thought about a few options. There’s the Snack J, of course. Running that full time, making it a successful, profitable business would be one way to go. But then again, maybe I could study an engineering degree. I can see myself working at the ISO, maybe even helping with some of Dr Nambu’s projects. Maybe I could convince Jinpei to take over the day to day running of the Snack J.” She paused as Joe raised an eyebrow at that suggestion. “No, Jinpei’s much more likely to run a zoo, or end up a Marine Biologist or something.” She giggled, Joe smirked, nodded and waited for Jun to continue. “But, in every version of my future I see myself married, living in a big house with a yard that the kids can play in, maybe a dog running around . . .”
“And I’m guessing Ken’s the happy husband in this picture?” Joe interjected. Jun was slow to reply.
“Well, maybe he used to be,” she admitted, “but now I don’t know who I see in that role.”
Joe took a moment to process this new information. Jun had had her cap set for Ken for a long time. What had happened to change her mind? And what might this mean for him? He had thought that he had been misreading some of Jun’s cues, but now he wasn’t so sure. His heart was racing.
“So, you’re not in love with him anymore?” he ventured.
“I’m beginning to wonder if I ever really was.” She scowled a little. “I mean, it was always one-sided. I was always the one dropping hints, making moves. It had to be obvious to him how I felt, and he never responded one way or the other. He could have told me how he felt about me, could have given us a chance to see how deep the feelings really ran. I feel like I never had the chance to find out if it was more than just a silly schoolgirl crush. More than drawing hearts with initials and thinking in song lyrics. I’ve wasted too much time waiting for him. Time he could have saved me by telling me he wasn’t interested. No, my future isn’t with him.”
“You know he really does have feelings for you. He just has this stubborn notion that duty comes first.” Joe felt conflicted. Ken was his best friend, and Jun was . . . well, they were close. He’d been trying to get them together because he thought it was what they both wanted. He hadn’t let himself think about what he wanted . . . until now. Still, he owed it to Ken to make sure she knew it wasn’t all one way traffic. “If, as you said earlier, this all ends tomorrow and he’s no longer Gatchaman, maybe he’d finally be able to show you how much he cares for you.”
Jun sighed and slowly shook her head.
“I’ve waited long enough. He’s used Gatchaman as an excuse not to commit to anything with me. There will always be an excuse. I get the feeling that deep down Ken will always need to be Gatchaman, running off to be the hero and save the world. I’m not prepared to be second place to that for my whole life. Don’t I deserve someone who can be honest about how he feels about me and who makes me feel like I’m more important than second place?”
“Of course. Yes. But . . .” Joe stumbled over each word, still shocked and warring internally over loyalty to his best friend and an awakening awareness of his own feelings for Jun. “You can’t just give up on a guy who loves you.”
Jun held his gaze, sadness and resignation in her eyes. Joe knew. She’d already spoken the words, and her expression confirmed it. No matter how deep Ken’s feelings for her might be, she was no longer carrying a torch for him.
“I had to move on, Joe. For my own sanity.”
He just nodded and turned his head, catching a glimpse of starlight breaking through the light cloud cover. He didn’t know how to say that he was happy for her, that she wasn’t standing for Ken’s indecision anymore, that she had freed her heart from a tangle that had only given her frustration. He couldn’t tell her that Ken would take this hard, that it mattered to Ken that she had feelings for him. Ken was the one who needed to tell her that. Just like he knew he should find a way to tell her about his own feelings for her, but at this moment he didn’t know how to say that either.
“Ken was an idiot to play with your feelings by not telling you his,” he finally spoke barely above a whisper. “You deserve so much more. You deserve to be with someone who makes you feel happy, someone who sees how amazing you are and is there to remind you of it whenever you doubt it.”
“Someone like you?”
“Yeah.” Oh crap! Did I just say that? Did she just say that?! Did she mean it?
Joe couldn’t stop his face turning red, or his heart beating hard and fast. He didn’t even think. He just answered. Was her question a joke? Did she mean it seriously? Was she flirting with him?
When he looked at her, smiling at him, cheeks flushed pink, he felt his heart leap. There was his answer. That was the most beautiful smile he thought he’d ever seen because now he knew he’d read the signals right. He felt the echo of her smile spread across his own face.
Jun could hardly believe what she’d heard. He said yes. She’d thought he might laugh at her question, thinking she was joking, but she could see that he’d answered with his heart before his head had time to filter his response. She felt as though she wore a Cheshire Cat grin, but she didn’t care. She felt relief and excitement, like something potentially wonderful was beginning.
Their moment was interrupted by an overhead shriek, a rustling of leaves and a dark shape glimpsed in the sky between the trees. Jun jumped and uttered a startled cry.
“Uh! What was that?!”
“Just a bat.” Joe couldn’t keep the laughter out of his voice.
“A bat?! Ew!” She shuddered and protectively drew her arms around herself. “Don’t laugh. They give me the creeps.”
“You have to see the funny side. You’re a ninja that strikes fear into the hearts of grown men, but you’re afraid of things that squawk in the night.”
“I can’t help it,” she said defensively. “Bats, spiders, snakes, bugs – they’re just so freaky with their creepy crawly legs or slimy scales or leathery wings. It just makes my skin crawl to think of them touching me!”
“So if I told you there’s a decent sized spider on your shoulder . . . “
“Aaah!” Jun screamed and frantically brushed at first one shoulder, then the other. “Get it off me! Where is it?!” Joe’s chuckle finally broke through her panic and she started to calm down. “You bastard!”
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist.”
“That’s not funny,” she admonished. “Just because you’re not afraid of anything.”
Joe’s eyes widened in surprise and one eyebrow lifted in puzzlement. “What makes you think that?”
“Oh, come on!” Jun had just about managed to get her hammering heartbeat back under control. “You’re the fearless Condor. Nothing ever rattles you. I’ve never seen you show even a hint of fear.”
“Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean I’m not afraid.” Joe’s voice was quiet and his contemplative gaze focused on the fire.
Jun waited for him to continue, but he remained silent, seemingly deep in thought. She couldn’t let him leave it at that. She shuffled over to sit on the sand beside him, draping her left forearm across his knees.
“Tell me what it is that scares you.”
He looked down into those intense green eyes. The visor dampened the colour but did nothing to lessen the compassion burning within them.
“Losing you.” Those two words alone seemed to carry so much meaning he had to pause before going on. “Losing any member of the team, or Dr Nambu. That terrifies me.” He paused again, closing his eyes for a few seconds. “I don’t know if I could handle that. I think it would kill me.”
“Joe!” Jun’s voice came out in a breathy whisper. She could see how real his fear was, how deep the feeling ran, and this was not an irrational fear. She wanted to help him, to somehow ease his fear, but she didn’t know how. Only hours ago it was Joe who had comforted her when she feared for the welfare of their teammates. All she could do was reach her right arm around his waist, under his wings for an awkward hug. His left hand rested on her back, an oddly comfortable weight between her shoulders.
“We came so close to losing you -” his voice cracked.
He nodded. “None of us handled that well. We really thought we’d lost you – that we’d . . .” he didn’t finish the sentence. He couldn’t tell her that for a while they thought they had killed her. Couldn’t tell her that he had been the one to set the field of flowers alight, or that he’d done it because of what he feared Ken was about to do. “The rest of us kind of fell apart without you.”
She could feel him shaking. Jun didn’t know what he was thinking about. There was so much that the boys kept quiet about when it came to her ordeal with the Jigokillers. She had never pressured them to say anything because they never put any pressure on her to tell them what she’d been through either. She had told Dr Nambu most of it, but no-one knew the full extent of the torment she’d suffered both during and after her encounter with Galactor’s killer flowers.
“I was so scared,” she whispered to him. “I didn’t know what was happening to me, where I was. I couldn’t contact any of you and I felt so alone. I thought I was going to die, alone. Alone and unable to fight what was happening to me. I kept thinking that you would find me, that you would all come to my rescue, but I was alone for so long. The longer I was inside that thing, the more I fought, the more futile it seemed.” His fingers flexed, tracing short lines back and forth on her back. She realised he wasn’t shaking anymore. “I still have nightmares where I’m right back inside that thing and all the fear comes back.”
It took a while before Joe felt composed enough to respond to this revelation from Jun. He knew she’d been through hell, but he hadn’t realised how deeply she’d been affected. He thought of the nightmares that kept him from sleeping through the night and wished he’d been able to spare her from hers.
“I have nightmares,” he confided, “where I relive the day my parents were killed by Galactor, only it’s not my parents I see lying there. It’s you guys – sometimes one or two of you, occasionally all five. Sometimes it’s not the Devilstar assassin in the shadows, it’s Berg Katse. Sometimes it doesn’t happen on that beach, it’s the God Phoenix or the base. But in every dream I saw it happen and couldn’t stop it. I’m afraid that Galactor will succeed in killing one of you and I won’t be able to do anything about it.”
“Joe, it’s okay to be afraid,” Jun soothed. “We all get scared – more than any of us like to admit. It just proves we’re human. And you, fearing for us more than yourself, that just proves what I’ve always known about you – you have the biggest, kindest heart of anyone I know. You just don’t like anyone to see it.”
Joe’s hand moved from her back to her shoulder, drawing her closer to him. She tightened her embrace in response.
“You have me confused with Ryu or Jinpei,” he tried to protest. “They’re the bleeding hearts.”
“Your heart has done plenty of bleeding. You try and keep your heart protected behind all that anger and courage because it already carries the scars of so many wounds.” She leaned her head against his side as tears gathered in Joe’s eyes. “Your secret is safe with me, Joe.”
He wasn’t sure if she meant his fear or his ‘bleeding heart’, but it didn’t matter. He appreciated Jun’s acknowledgement that this was something that should remain between the two of them.
For some time they stayed in that quiet embrace, just content to be close and enjoying their time alone. Eventually Joe’s rumbling stomach and Jun’s drooping eyelids had them reaching for a dinner of fruit and settling into a comfortable spot for the night.
Jun quickly fell into a restless slumber. The pain in her ankle made it difficult to find a comfortable sleeping position. Joe kept a watchful eye on her as he tended the fire. After a period of tossing and turning, Jun finally settled in a slightly curled position on her side. Joe was sitting beside her when she rolled over and rested her back against his leg. He gently placed his hand just above her hip, feeling the rising and falling of her breathing as it settled into the rhythm of deep, restful sleep at last. Sleep still eluded him. The dull ache in his head was still there, and he had too much on his mind to relax.
When he was sure Jun was fast asleep he took advantage of the bright three-quarter moon and a significant break in the cloud cover. Joe began setting out large pieces of salvaged debris on the beach, bit by bit piecing together a large image of the team symbol. Whenever the cloud cover darkened the white sand too much he returned to the fire to check on Jun and keep the fire going.
Some hours later, with the symbol on the beach completed Joe finally settled himself with his back against a tree trunk, close by Jun’s peacefully sleeping form. He stretched his legs out before him, let his eyes close and began to doze, hoping the nightmares would leave him alone.
Jun awoke the next morning to the smell of fish cooking on the fire. Blinking her eyes open and stretching as she reacquainted herself with her surroundings, she caught Joe’s eye and smiled.
“Good morning. Ready for breakfast?” he greeted her.
She wondered how early he’d woken. The sun was still quite low in the sky, casting long shadows across the beach. She guessed dawn had been perhaps a little over an hour ago. The fish had been cleaned, gutted, scaled and filleted remarkably well considering the limited tools Joe had available. That was likely to have taken quite a bit of time, not to mention how long it had taken to catch the fish. As Joe removed the make-shift hotplate from the coals Jun turned her attention towards the water and discovered fishing was not the only thing Joe had been up to. She wondered if he had slept at all.
“You’ve been busy.” She smiled again as he handed her a piece of perfectly cooked fish. He returned a smile of his own and shrugged.
“I figured we needed more than fruit for breakfast.”
“And that?” She pointed to the pattern of metal pieces and rocks on the beach. “The signal, right?”
“Yeah. It could probably use a bit of neatening up here and there, but it should get the message across.” He took a bite of his fish.
Jun took a moment to bite, chew and swallow a little more of her own piece of fish before speaking again.
“No wonder you get headaches if you never sleep,” she teased.
“I slept,” he argued, a little sheepishly. He wasn’t going to tell her it was a brief, restless sleep full of
bad dreams, or that a few hours of sleep a night was pretty average for him in recent weeks.
They ate in silence for a few minutes. Fish made a much more satisfying meal than the fruit they’d had the night before. Once they’d finished Joe asked how Jun’s ankle was feeling.
“A little stiff and sore,” she replied, “but it’s okay.”
“I could re-bandage it for you.”
“No, I just need to get it moving a bit. Thanks.”
“Would you be up for a walk to search for that jamming device?”
Jun raised her eyebrows. “Do you know something I don’t?” she queried.
“No. I was just thinking about what you said yesterday. About the possibility that it was moving. A lot more debris from the mecha has washed ashore overnight. Maybe you should take another look and see if you can pinpoint a location.”
Her lip curled in a crooked smile. It would seem a lack of sleep didn’t impede his intelligence. Jun opened the faceplate of her bracelet and activated her scanning device.
“You could be right,” she affirmed after a short period of concentrated analysis. “It seems to have a definite location now, but if my calculations are correct it might still be underwater.” She looked out at the ocean, back at her bracelet and then southward along the beach.
“How far?” he asked.
“Maybe a hundred meters or so down that way,” she pointed to their left, “and up to fifteen meters offshore. I might be able to give a more accurate position when we get closer.”
Joe could see the spark of excitement in Jun’s eyes. If they could find this thing and restore communication with the others then rescue wouldn’t be far away.
“Let’s get going then!” Joe helped her up, and after a couple of limping steps she was managing to walk fairly normally beside him. She didn’t let go of his hand though.
Jun kept her eye on the tiny blip on her bracelet as they walked, while Joe made sure they steered clear of any stray bits of metal littering the sand. They had been heading steadily closer to the water’s edge, so when Joe led them a few paces toward the softer sand, away from the lapping waves to avoid an obstacle, Jun looked up to see what had washed up on the beach.
“Oh!” she gasped, wishing she hadn’t looked up and closing her eyes against the ghastly sight.
The body of a Galactor soldier lay face down in the sand, waves lapping at his legs and feet. It was a confronting site. Not just because of the state the corpse was in after so many hours in the water, but also because they both knew this was their doing. Jun turned to look at Joe, wanting to ask him what they should do, but something in the way he was staring at the poor, lifeless guy stopped her. His expression seemed to be one of reflection and regret, and perhaps even sympathy.
“There but for the grace of God go I,” he muttered under his breath.
“What?” Jun wasn’t sure she understood what she’d heard him say.
“Nothing,” Joe replied, snapping out of his contemplative mood.
“You’re not like him. You were never one of them, no matter what your family history is, you would never have ended up one of them.”
Joe squeezed her hand, grateful for her sympathy and compassion, but he knew she was wrong.
“It’s not that simple, Jun,” he explained. “Sure, some of these guys chose this, knowing what they were signing up for, but some of them don’t know anything else. Being part of Galactor is all they’ve ever known. If you’re born into Galactor you don’t get a choice. And if, by some miracle you manage to break free of the brainwashing enough to know you’re part of something evil, there’s only one way out.”
Jun nodded her understanding and gave Joe’s hand a return squeeze.
“We can’t just leave him here, can we?” she asked.
Joe was looking up the beach a bit, spying something he could use as a shovel.
“I’m going to bury him.” His voice was barely audible.
Joe lifted the torso by the armpits and dragged the body across the beach towards the tree line before using the shovel-like metal piece to dig a grave for the unknown enemy soldier. No words passed between them as Joe worked, there were no words that seemed to fit a moment like this. Jun did what she could to help Joe inter the body. When they had completed the burial the two ninjas stood by the grave in silence, filled with mixed emotions. Joe put his arm around Jun and she rested her head against his shoulder.
“Thanks,” he intoned. “I know it was kind of an odd thing to do.”
“No,” she answered, “it felt right.”
Without another word on the subject they turned their attention back to the search for the communication jammer. As they headed back towards the breakers Jun checked the tracker on her bracelet again. Joe followed Jun along the water’s edge for about fifteen meters before she stopped and gazed out to sea.
“It looks like it’s about twenty meters straight out there,” she instructed.
“Okay. Any idea what I’m looking for exactly?” Joe asked. “Size? Shape? Tell-tale markings?”
Jun shook her head and shrugged. “Sorry.”
With a nod Joe headed out into the calm, blue water, checking back over his shoulder a few times to gauge direction and distance. When he reached approximately the right place he signalled to Jun that he was ready to dive. She signalled back that his position looked good, then he disappeared beneath the surface. His first dive was fairly brief, a quick reconnoitre. He surfaced, looked back at the beach to be sure of his bearings then went under again. This time he was under for so long that Jun began to wonder how long he could hold his breath. She was tempted to go in after him. Just as she decided he couldn’t possibly hold his breath that long and must be in trouble, she saw his head break the surface. He was further out than where he’d first dived. He took a while to catch his breath before swimming back to shore, clutching something in one hand.
“I think this is it,” he announced as he waded through the shallows.
The object was roughly the size of a soccer ball, but shaped somewhat like a barrel, with two flat ends. There was the familiar red devil’s head Galactor symbol painted on the curved, shiny black surface.
“It’s kind of heavy, warm to touch and seems to be vibrating slightly,” Joe explained as he handed it to Jun, still breathing hard.
“I wonder how it opens,” Jun pondered, turning the object this way and that, and running her hands over the smooth surface.
“Maybe I can cut it open with the torch,” Joe suggested, reaching for his gun.
Jun laid a hand on his wrist to stop him.
“Let me try and figure it out first.” She smiled at him, a gleam in her eye. “It’s not like we’re in any danger. There’s no hurry.”
He smiled back at her and let a raised eyebrow ask a silent question. She blushed a little.
“I just mean, if we take our time, maybe, if we don’t damage it, it can be analysed when we get back,” she faltered. She wasn’t fooling him.
Sheepishly, she sat down on the soft sand a few meters from the lapping waves to examine the casing of the device once again. Joe followed her over, attempting to shake the water out of his helmet as he did so. He watched Jun’s methodical inspection of the seemingly impenetrable surface. As she turned it in her hands something caught his eye.
“Wait!” he exclaimed, dropping to his knees beside her and placing his hands over hers to tilt the object in order to catch the light at a certain angle. “There!” He traced his right index finger over a small section of the edge of the painted Galactor logo.
“Where?! I don’t see anything,” Jun protested.
“It’s tiny, and right on the edge of the marking.” Jun let go, allowing him to turn the object again as he traced his finger over the opposite side of the red devil’s head symbol. “And there’s the other one.”
He handed it back to Jun. After a few seconds of feeling and tilting towards the light, squinting and brow furrowing she was eventually able to see the tiny slits on each side of the red paintwork. Square edged slits barely a millimetre wide and perhaps three millimetres long.
“We’re gonna need something small enough and thin enough to fit inside each one, but strong enough to trigger the catches inside,” Joe hypothesised. “Both catches will need to be released at the same time to get this thing open."
“I think I might have something . . .” Jun trailed off as she dug around inside one of the pouches on her belt. “Here!”
She pulled out a thin metal nail file, pointed on each end. Joe grinned at the triumphant gleam in her eyes as she handed it to him.
“If you can snap it in half . . .” there was no need for her to finish as Joe had already done so.
The point on each end of the file was thin enough, tapered enough and strong enough to do the job. In wordless synchronisation they set themselves to operate the catches, Joe on the left and Jun on the right. The tapered file tips penetrated just far enough for them to hear the catches on each side click, and the red symbol sprung open, the devil horns acting as hinges.
A look of triumph passed between them as their heads came close together so they could look inside. The electronics involved in the transmission, amplification and modulation of the jamming signal were complex and densely packed inside the compact casing, but the power source was immediately obvious to both of them. It was a simple matter for Jun to disconnect the power supply. When she was done she looked up at Joe.
“We make a great team, Joe,” she affirmed with a beaming smile that sparkled in her eyes.
“Yes, we do,” he agreed.
That moment, with them so close and feeling the elation of success, combined with the rhythmic murmur of the waves and the warm sun on their shoulders, Joe felt it was the perfect moment to lean in for a kiss. God, he wanted to, and if he was reading things right, she would not object. If it wasn’t for the visors on their helmets he would not have hesitated. He had the fleeting thought that Dr Nambu had possibly designed them this way deliberately to prevent any ‘inappropriate intimate contact’. Before he could act on his romantic instinct Joe’s bracelet chirped.
“G2 this is G1, do you copy?” a tinny version of Ken’s voice queried with an air of urgency.
“I read you Commander, and before you ask, yes she is and we’re both fine. Jun’s sending you our location details now.” Joe couldn’t help glancing at Jun with an apologetic, talk-about-bad-timing smirk.
“Good to hear from you at long last! You had us worried.” There was an undercurrent of relief in Ken’s authoritative tone. “We’re about ten minutes away.”
“Understood,” Joe replied. “We’ve laid out a welcome mat on the beach.”
Ken acknowledged Joe’s cryptic instruction and signed out. Jun looked at Joe with a quizzical expression. He returned one of his own in answer.
“How did you know Ken would call so quickly after the device was deactivated?” Joe still seemed puzzled by her question. “Yesterday you knew our comms were still jammed when we landed here. You said Ken would call if they weren’t.”
A slow smile spread across Joe’s features. “I set my communicator to send a simple double beep beacon signal to the God Phoenix every ten minutes.”
Her smile widened and she looked at him with admiration. “I wouldn’t even have thought of that,” she admitted. “When did you set that up?”
“As soon as I figured out they were jamming us. To be honest, I had forgotten all about it until Ken interrupted us.”
“Interrupted?” She eyed him playfully. “What would have happened if he hadn’t . . . interrupted?”
The look in his eyes gave her butterflies. It was intense and sweet and smouldering and adoring all at once, and she couldn’t look away. She didn’t want to. He took her gloved hand in his, and kissed it. It felt a little goofy, but it was the best he could do while they were both wearing their helmets. Jun understood completely what the kiss on the hand signified. In her opinion the moment Ken had interrupted had felt like it was leading to a kiss. A kiss she found herself yearning for.
“Are we starting something, Joe?” she heard herself ask.
“I hope so.”
“What do we tell Ken?”
Joe pondered this for a moment, still holding her captivated in his gaze.
“We don’t,” he decided. “But we won’t hide it from him either. If he has something to say about it . . .”
“Then we tell him he can’t stop us,” she finished for him.
It wasn’t what Joe had been about to say, but he admired the fiery spirit blazing in her eyes. He could happily sit here with her like this forever, lost in her eyes, her smile, adoring her and not having a care in the world, but the others were on their way.
“We need to get back down the beach,” he indicated towards the fire and the giant Science Ninja Team logo. “They’ll be here soon.”
They stood up, both feeling a little reluctant. Joe took a few steps, but Jun hesitated and he turned back. She looked deep into his eyes then wrapped her arms around him in an embrace. His arms encircled her in return and they held each other close, not wanting the feeling of being alone together to come to an end.
“We’d better go,” she finally whispered into his neck.
They took their time walking back, then set about extinguishing the fire as they heard the engines of the approaching warship. Resisting the urge to hold hands, they stood on the beach to watch the God Phoenix land on the surface of the water. As they boarded they were greeted by an excited Jinpei.
“Onechan!” Jun was nearly bowled over in his rush to wrap her in a fierce hug. “I’m glad you’re back!”
“Me too, Jinpei.” She hugged him tight before they both took their seats.
“I’m glad you’re okay too, Joe,” Jinpei added rather sheepishly. Joe patted him on the back on the way past by way of response.
“You’re limping, Jun,” Ken observed. “Are you okay?”
“Just a sprained ankle, nothing to worry about,” she assured him.
Joe handed Ken the jamming device as he headed for his own seat. They had left it open and Ken gazed inside it in curiosity.
“Souvenir,” Joe quipped as he sat.
“Man, you two must have some story to tell,” Ryu commented, preparing the God Phoenix for take-off.
“Let’s get back to base,” Ken commanded, a hint of weariness in his voice. “We can all discuss the details of the last twenty-four hours in debrief.”
The engines roared as the majestic blue and red ship launched into the sky and headed for home. Another adventure had come to an end, but something else was just beginning.